Parents these days are not OK; this we know. Our current crisis has thrown the extent to which our system fails working parents into high relief. We already had to do far too much, all at the same time, and somehow “make it work” even though, for most of us, the avenues of support from everyone to our employers to our spouses to the federal government amounted to nil.
Still: One of the major questions on my mind right now is how all of this is going to affect my kids. It’ll have a lasting impact, for sure…but what will that impact be? I reached out to parenting and relationship coach Graziella Simonetti of Your Parenting Pals to find out what we can expect – and how we can help.
We are in what is likely, and hopefully, a once in a generation type crisis. With that comes an uncertainty over how this prolonged stress will impact us and our children. We wish had a magical wand that gave us the power to say what life will look like when things settle or to share, with certainty, what can be done to protect ourselves and our children from the trauma. We don’t. What we know is that right now, there is a lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty can cause anxiety and stress. This stressful event doesn’t necessarily have to turn into toxic stress. The goal is to make it as tolerable and manageable as possible.
Be kind to yourself. There is a grieving process most everyone is experiencing right now. For the first time in any of our lifetimes, there is a collective grief that is global. As people mourn the loss of normalcy, safety, and social connection, there is also fear of what is to come. Maintaining social and emotional support is critical. With social distancing, this will look differently than we are used to.
So here’s the big question: How can we help our children?
Since we do not know how long this “new normal” will last, or what life will look like after this passes, do not promise things you cannot guarantee. Focus on small and concrete assurances: “I cannot say for sure when this will end, but right now we are safe and healthy.” If she asks when she is going back to school, you can say something like “I do not know that answer yet. I do know that today, we have time to play a game. Would you like to choose what game we play?“ If she expresses or demonstrates feelings about you not knowing, allow for space to talk about those feelings.
There is a difference between social distancing and social isolation. Allowing for social interaction, through video chat, letter writing, or phone calls can be helpful. Utilize movement as a family. Go for walks (while maintaining social distance) and play outside if possible and safe. Incorporating physical activity can lower anxiety and act a stress reliever.
Anxiety can serve a purpose: It can be protective. It is fear and anxiety that alerts us to danger and causes us respond. During the COVID19 outbreak, anxiety can be purposeful when it calls us to action through social distancing and washing our hands thoroughly and consistently. However, the combination of feeling out of control and the lack of social connection can cause anxiety to skyrocket. If you or your children find that the anxiety becomes disruptive, debilitating, or overwhelming, practice mindfulness. Some mindfulness strategies include:
- Focus on ‘what is’ instead of ‘what if.’ Today, I am healthy. Right now, I am safe.
- Concentrate on your breath. Count four seconds on the inhale, hold for four seconds, count four seconds on the exhale, then hold another four seconds. Keep repeating these breaths.
- Be where your feet are.
- Name some things you see around the room.
- Focus on current sensory experiences (the floor feels hard beneath my feet, the couch feels soft on my back).
- Listen for the furthest sounds you hear.
- Download mindfulness meditation apps such as Headspace, Smiling Mind, or Insight Timer.
Depression may also be setting in for your children as a result of the lack of predictability and the increase of social isolation. Make a point to check in to assess how your child is doing emotionally. Children may not have the words to express their feelings, but you may notice changes in behavior. They may be irritable, clingy, or distracted. You may notice changes in sleeping and eating.
Acknowledge the loss, giving children the space to express and process their feelings. Some children prefer expressing their feelings through journaling, while others may prefer talking about what is upsetting them. Some can express themselves through song, and others through drawing. Validate their emotions, and offer them the opportunity to ask questions.
Talk to your children about rock problems and clay problems. Rock problems are things we cannot change or control. Clay problems are things we can. (Having an actual rock and Play-Doh when having this conversation can help make the lesson more tangible). Rock problems would be school being canceled, what other people are doing, and knowing with certainty when we can see our friends again. Clay problems would be washing our hands, doing our homework, and practicing social distancing. Also, during this time when children are feeling out of control, offer opportunities for choice and control when possible. Let her decide what order she does her work in. Have him choose what game to play today. Give her an opportunity to decide what the family is having for dinner one night. Offer voice and choice.
When our brains react to stress, the emotional control center of the brain hijacks our executive functioning and makes it difficult to respond with reason and logic. If the logical part of the brain is hijacked by the emotional part of the brain, trying to get your child to focus on instruction can be a near impossible feat. Work, instead, on connecting with him to help him feel calm and safe again. It is only then, when the child feels calm and safe, that part of the brain that can focus on instruction can get back online.
Encourage your children, as Mr. Rogers says, to “look for the helpers.” There are doctors and nurses and hospital personnel who are working hard to keep the germs away. Scientists and researchers are studying the virus and working to get us the information to help us through this. Talk about how they are being a helper and are protecting others by practicing social distancing and washing their hands. Research, with your child, places to donate to. Write letters to people who cannot have visitors at nursing homes. Send lunch to those helping in these times. Videochat with people who may be lonely. Help the elderly and vulnerable get the food they need by shopping for them or having food delivered. Doing something kind for another person can help shift a negative or fearful mindset.
Demonstrate kindness and forgiveness towards yourself right now. Let go of handling everything “right” or “perfectly” during this destabilizing time. Maintain space and energy for your own wellness. This can be a time of unprecedented connection among family. Carve out time for fun and bonding and connection.
And finally: Many therapists are offering teletherapy at this time. Reach out for support if you are concerned.
- For free emotional support, consultation, and referral to a provider, call 1-844-863-9314
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network https://www.nctsn.org/